Billionaire Michael Bloomberg and Chinese vice-president Wang Qishan at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore in November 2018. Photo: AFP
by Robert Boxwell
by Robert Boxwell

Michael Bloomberg in the White House? China might say thanks, but no thanks

  • The billionaire’s history of self-censorship with regard to China is a liability with voters that his rivals in the presidential race would seize on. This would make China-related issues a focus in the election, a turn of event Beijing would not welcome
You might think former New York City mayor and billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg’s entry into the 2020 US presidential race would be welcomed by Beijing. Bloomberg has been a compliant capitalist in China for years, especially since he learned his lesson about discussing sensitive topics in 2012.
After Bloomberg News ran a story on the wealth of then vice-president Xi Jinping’s family, Beijing blocked Bloomberg sites in China and quietly banned state-owned enterprises from buying Bloomberg terminals, his business’s largest revenue generator.
Yet he managed to get back in Beijing’s good graces. It couldn’t have hurt that, in 2013, it was reported that Bloomberg News had spiked a similar story, about “hidden financial ties between one of the wealthiest men in China and the families of top Chinese leaders”. In a further act of simpatico politics, he chose Shanghai for the 2018 launch of his New Economy Forum. The trade war put the kibosh on that – it was moved to Singapore – but this year’s event will be held in Beijing in a couple of weeks.

In September, during an interview on PBS’s Firing Line, Bloomberg stated that Xi was “not a dictator” and that he had to serve “his constituents” or they would somehow scoot him out of office. Xi must have loved this. Bloomberg’s assertion got a few guffaws in the 24-hour American media cycle at the time, but little more came of it. Americans seemed inured to a rich guy censoring himself to avoid the pain of being hit in the wallet by Beijing.

Unfortunately for Bloomberg, however, a bunch of rich basketball players highlighted this phenomenon of self-censorship last month like no politician could. And, now that it looks like he is about to enter the 2020 presidential race, his “not a dictator” comments are likely to come back to haunt him.
Bloomberg’s presence as a candidate can’t be good news for Beijing. It will elevate the issue of the United States’ relationship with China and President Donald Trump will surely pit his record against Bloomberg’s on dealing with Beijing. Health care, education, immigration and guns will be talked about less; Hong Kong, Xinjiang, free speech and missiles will be talked about more.

Xi’s plan to tighten grip on Hong Kong would kill his Chinese dream

Bloomberg’s interview was extraordinary. Asked by Margaret Hoover about China’s air pollution, he defended Beijing’s record by saying it was moving coal-fired power plants away from the big cities. “Xi Jinping is not a dictator,” he said. “He has to satisfy his constituents or he’s not going to survive.” Hoover gave him a politely sceptical look, then gave him a chance to recover. “He’s not a dictator?” Bloomberg pushed the life preserver away. “No, he has to – he has a constituency to answer to.” Hoover kept trying, but let’s just say Bloomberg wasn’t taking it back.

The video of this exchange is bound to be looped endlessly by both his Democratic primary opponents and Trump if Bloomberg somehow makes it to the final.

The trade war, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the National Basketball Association have all focused Americans’ attention on China like it hasn’t been in decades, and they don’t see a pretty picture. Bloomberg’s entry into the presidential race will only increase this focus.
No president since Ronald Reagan has stood up to Beijing the way the way Trump has. For all his character flaws and seeming lack of comprehensive strategy for China, he has been remarkably effective in knocking China’s leaders off stride. His unpredictability has caused Beijing embarrassment and befuddlement for almost three years now. Nothing indicates he’s going to turn conventional any time soon.

The only thing unpredictable about a President Bloomberg will be whether he announces a resumption of good relations with Beijing before or after lunch on his first day in office.

How to lose friends and make enemies, China style

If there’s a single issue on which the 77-year-old, eighth richest American is most out of touch with the country, China is it. While both sides of Congress act at times like even Trump is going too soft, candidate Bloomberg characterises Xi Jinping as a good guy, working hard to deliver services to his constituents.

In the Firing Line interview, he said the role of president is “management”. That’s how more than a few billionaires view politics.

Trump can count on his base in 2020, but many other Americans will also vote for him simply because he’s not the other guy, or gal, like they did in 2016. Bloomberg represents something many Americans loathe – ignoring American values to make big money in oppressive places.

Once political ads start airing of him making fawning comments about Xi, he’ll become this other guy. And Beijing is likely to wish he had stuck to managing from the corner office and not tried to do it from the White House.

Robert Boxwell is director of the consultancy Opera Advisors